Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond advertise their family’s funeral home in “Fun Home.” © Joan Marcus
GROWING UP GAY IN A FUNERAL HOME IN THE STICKS—REALLY!
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
The Curran Theater, after a two-year makeover, reopened in January with the Tony Award–winning musical “Fun Home,” based on the controversial graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel. The novel caused some controversy several years ago when it was placed on the syllabus of a public school English class and objected to by a few parents. A San Francisco audience will probably wonder what the fuss was all about.
The novel is presented as a memoir of the author’s childhood, growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania as the daughter of two school teachers. Her father’s hobby is fixing up the old family home, returning it to what he sees as its original elegance. The father also runs the family business, on the side. This happens to be a funeral home—referred to by the children with insouciant sangfroid as “fun home.”
The father has a secret; so does the daughter, which, she discovers, under macabre and tragic circumstances, is in exact parallel to her father’s. They are both gay. Later (no spoiler here, as the show lets us know early on exactly where we are headed) the father is killed in a road accident not long after his daughter tells him she is a lesbian, and there is some question whether or not his death was a suicide. The story takes a few weak stabs, none convincing, at exploring whether or not it was.
From this not always sharply focused material (there are at least three storylines that clash as often as they cohere), a musical has been made that is about what one might expect: a sometimes strained attempt to find a universal core in a sometimes distractingly bizarre complex of situations by forcing perfectly nice people to break into soaring if sometimes shapeless melodies, boisterous but sometimes unconvincing ensembles, set pieces that come out of nowhere and then return there, scenes of revelation, love and despair (and vice versa), and question-begging speeches and storylines that can only be based on fact as no fiction writer would have left us caught so inescapably in reality’s stubborn refusal to make sense.
Yet the show is more than worth a visit, if only because the situation it depicts, as messy as reality, is close to what many gays in this country have had to confront for a very long time indeed, even as homosexuality has become more accepted as a natural and valuable part of the human condition. This musical helps mark how far at least our urban culture has come over the last generation, and as a moral, if not always artistic, triumph, it is to be encouraged and its creators and performers applauded.
The daughter, Alison, is performed by three “actors.” (May I interrupt our show at this point to make a plea that we call female actors actresses once again? Calling women by masculine cognomens is, I submit, sexist; speaking personally, I disapprove of any form of sexism, including feminist sexism. Differences, I believe, should be honored and not erased, but they can only be honored if they are named.) These are Grown-up Alison, a cartoon artist who narrates the story, played persuasively by Kate Shindle; Youngest Alison, played (on the evening I saw the show) with bouncy vim by Alessandra Baldacchino; and College Girl Alison, played, in the best performance of the night, by a pitch-perfect Abby Corrigan, who looks like she walked out of an updated Archie comic with wondering eyebrows and an expression of perpetual innocent shock. These three share one of the show’s best moments, in a trio near the end that nicely captures the confusion of identities that lies at the heart of being human at the best of times.
One other performer was especially impressive, though her part is comparatively small and she is spared having to break into song. This was Karen Eilbacher, who plays Joan, revealer to the sexually uncertain Alison of her own gayness in a sweet and funny scene with Abby that is one of the show’s loveliest and most touching moments. Eilbacher does a great deal with a cool mien and perfectly gauged body language, to say nothing of a killing Mohawk.
The weakest link in the story is the depiction of the father (played by a game Robert Petkoff), who is never explored in sufficient depth by the script; he is kept at a distance as a nerdy, controlling, self-deceiving, closeted Log Cabin Republican−type gay man who we remain maddeningly outside of; a shell without an interior, unless the over-controlled, airless, funereal tastelessness of his home (revealed in a brilliant move of stagecraft in the middle of the show) is in fact his interior. The glasses he wears are both a sign of his inability to see the world on his own, and of our inability to see him, read his face and thus the man. Keeping him hidden behind his prosthesis for most of two hours hobbles an actor’s ability to give his expressions much nuance. (The same might be said of Grownup Alison, though to less untoward effect.)
Alison’s mother is played by Susan Moniz; it is a bit of a thankless role, as the mother’s motivations for staying with Alison’s father remain as murky as the man himself is. Alison’s younger brothers are played with energy and charm by Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond, and with Baldacchino have one of the show’s best moments: a whacky ensemble in which they act out a make-believe TV commercial for their “fun home.” Too bad I couldn’t hear all the lyrics in an otherwise well-mic’d show; the ones I could hear were some of the show’s funniest lines.
The objects of the father’s interest down the years are nicely played by Robert Hager.
The instrumentals were performed onstage by the Fun Home Orchestra; John Doing’s percussion and Philip Varricchio’s clarinet made especially memorable contributions.
Christopher Bernard is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. His novel Voyage to a Phantom City came out in 2016; his new book—a collection of poetry called Chien Lunatique—will be published in May.